Tuesday, June 24, 2008

My Most Absurd Belief

The economists at George Mason University take people to lunch and then ask them "What's your most absurd belief?"

What a great question! I think my most absurd economics-related belief is that we'd have just as much technology and entertainment if we got rid of patents and limited copyright to 20 years after publication...

Socialism, as a philosophy, appeals to me. Why couldn't we all just do our best, share with each other, and all be one big happy family?

Unfortunately, Socialism, as an economic or political system, just doesn't work.

But I've got this little nagging voice in my head that says that maybe the digital economy is different. The marginal cost of reproducing a song or software program or digital textbook is, approximately, zero. The laptop computer I'm writing this on contains my entire music collection; it would take me ten days, nine hours and forty-five minutes to listen to it all.

And I just realized that I'm sharing it with everybody else here at Cushman Market. Why not share? It would be extra work for me to remember to turn off sharing every time I disconnected my laptop from my home network; that's a waste of my time. It's more economical for me to be a digital socialist.

Before we know it, our laptops and iPods will be able to store every song and book ever published. We could make all of that information and entertainment available to everybody in the world; wouldn't that make the world a much better place?

But that's absurd. If artists can't sell their songs, or authors can't sell their books, then artists and authors will stop creating new stuff!

I dunno. I have no idea how, but I think it would actually all work out OK if we got rid of almost all of our current intellectual property protections. Maybe we'd have fewer artists and authors, but maybe that would turn out to be just fine. Maybe if people spent less time working to earn money to buy music and books they'd create more music and books themselves.

Uh-huh. And maybe we could get together to form sustainable local organizations of like-minded people and form an ideal society that's in complete harmony with nature.

(stupid hippies....)


Anonymous said...

I do believe that there needs to be a minimal protection for the author/inventor to reap benefit from their creations. And I do this does create incentive.

But we must tread carefully as to the weight of these protections. There is a careful balance between the incentive to create and an impediment to leveraging existing creations.

Where is the tipping point? Currently US patent law is 20 years, which seems too long to me, but much too short to some US Senators representing businesses who are reaping big revenues from their patents.

US Copyright law (extended by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extention Act) is now 70 years after the death of the author (or 120 years if it was a work for hire).

And business is lobbying for massive extention of both these laws. These lengths will have a dampening effect on innovation, as inventors cannot leverage existing inventions freely.

Where is the balance? 10 years for each? Sounds good to me, but there must be some good research on this somewhere.

Gavin Andresen said...

I'd say copyright holders should be able to recoup (say) 98% of their potential profit, 98% of the time.

I bet a copyright length of 10 years would work with those numbers; publishers make all their money in the first few months/years that a new piece of music/film/software is out. Maybe there are copyright-protected industries where profits are made slowly over a very long period of time, although I can't think of any right now.

Of course, the fashion and perfume industries seem to be doing just fine, even though you can't patent your perfume or copyright your miniskirt design (which is why I still cling to the absurd notion that maybe we don't need copyrights and patents at all...)

Matthew Cornell said...

Love the question! Mine: That I can be successful, with no training, no business experience, and just a bag full of knowledge, experience, and excitement! ;-)